In a very real sense, what I’m working from in writing this blog is the aftermath of writing a doctoral dissertation in 1982 as a grad student in the Humanistic and Behavioral Studies Department of Boston University’s School of Education. It took decades for me to shake off the academic tone I adopted in writing a 625-page book that, as far as I know, no one has read all the way through except me.

More particularly, I am working through the lessons I learned in writing Chapter 5, Pheromones to Phenomena, which dealt with the workings of the brain as understood at that time (largely based on animal studies). When I go back and read that chapter, I find what I wrote then is still true for me today. Not that my growth was stunted from then-on; more that what I hit upon in that chapter about the neural underpinnings of perception, judgment, and memory still serves as an excellent model for the mind revealed to me through introspection.

Of course we find in the world largely what we expect to find, so it sounds like I am indulging in a self-fulfilling prophesy. But that’s not what I mean. What I wrote then about the nature of consciousness still helps me to understand my mind of today. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

Not that I literally remember those thoughts from yesteryear. They surprise me every time I go back and read them. It’s the unspoken sense of concentration and commitment that drove me to write the dissertation that sticks with me. Now reduced to an intuitive feel for the topic I am writing about, a kind of silent presence in the background that guides me twenty-three years later.

I began Chapter Five, Pheromones to Phenomena, with the radical switch our species had to make from reliance on our ancestors’ sense of smell to living in a higher world with almost no smell at all. When we stood up on our hind legs, our jaws and snouts lessened, and we had to compensate for what we lost by rapidly developing our senses of vision and hearing, along with the ability to control muscles governing balance, posture, stance, and precise movement of our fingers.

It is the experience of thinking those thoughts that I retain to this day, not writing about what gradually happened to the amygdala, hippocampus, cerebral cortex, and other perceptual systems in having to adapt to a world without pheromones.

I was wholly engaged with my topic when I wrote my dissertation letter-perfect (with White-out) on an IBM Selectric typewriter, and it is what my brain has done with that engagement that I carry with me today, not the actual words and citations.

I know because I went back and read Chapter Five: there it all was in splendid detail. When I practice introspection in writing about the foibles of my own mind, that process is backed up by the deep concentration I put into clicking away at my typewriter day-after-day for over two years. And into scouring the sources I read in the years before that.

The difference between then and now is that today I am trying to write in English appropriate to a blog aimed at a general audience, not academic English as suited to dissertation committees and peer reviewers. It has taken this long to shed old habits learned in school, and as you can tell from reading these posts, I am still trying to overcome a natural bent to make simple things sound complicated.

Are my ideas now out-of-date because they are descendants of ideas I wrestled with in grad school? Or even earlier? I’ve written about the important role memory plays in perception, so that the words I write today go back to the language I babbled when I was an infant. Are my words as old as I am? I say, no, because I see myself as a trainable who can adapt to changing times. Words do change, but not as fast as people do. By reading a few notes, we can still make sense of Chaucer and Shakespeare, if not Beowulf—all far older than I am.

So what did I write in my dissertation? Here are some samples from Chapter Five of Metaphor to Mythology (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1982). In these excerpts, because olfactory bulbs (smell receptors) in our ancestors have such immediate access to the hippocampus and limbic system, the interactive components that make up that system are featured, including hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. I am using these bulleted quotations to illustrate the specialized world I inhabited in grad school.

  • The entire cortex is an evolutionary derivative of the sense of smell (page 259).
  • Our erect posture, by distancing our olfactory receptors from the sources of smell, has deprived us of the benefits of pheromonal [olfactory signal] communication, so it is not surprising that we have increasingly come to rely on non-chemical means for integrating our internal state with our environment (page 260).
  • The limbic system operates basically as a “selection unit” to determine the biological value of sensory information in relation to various organic drives, and then functions to facilitate the storage of information deemed relevant to successful functioning of the organism (page 263).
  • The regulation of cognitive function shifts away from the processing of pheromonal signals to the identification and evaluation of cues in the visual and auditory modalities. What remains constant, however, is the crucial role of the hippocampus (and the limbic system in general) in learning, memory, communication, and social organization (page 264).
  • The interpretation of neurological studies often relies heavily upon the twin concepts of the internal and external milieu. . . . homologous to one-celled animals in which a semipermeable membrane separates an “inside” from an “outside.” The internal milieu represents the equilibrated chemical innards that constitute the life-sustaining works of the organism; the external milieu being the sum total of all ambient stimulation an investigator can imagine to be impinging upon its sensibilities (page 268).
  • [Hippocampal] function is related to the enduring consequences of a comparison (seeing one signal in terms of another, a kind of seeing-as) between two different classes of sensory input—one primarily sensory, the other . . . facilitated by precedent episodes of similar experience (page 277f.).
  • Under novel circumstances it would be the hippocampus that would effect a comparison between perception and memory, emitting a signal that would be proportional to the non-familiarity of the sensory signal, and leading to exploratory behavior designed to acquire a more coherent and detailed version of that signal. Comparisons resulting in a high degree of registration would enable the animal to make a response on the basis of an assumed identification to which the existing repertoire of behaviors would more likely be both adequate and appropriate (page 280).
  • Since an animal’s sensory stimulation will vary in accordance with its own locomotion, it is essential that some mechanism be available to distinguish between self-generated and environment-generated variation in sensory input. To accomplish this, signals that exhibit covariation with proprioceptive input from muscle spindles and receptors in tendons and joints must be credited to the organism itself and subjected to inhibition in order to determine the coherent pattern of sensation that can be attributed to stimuli in the environment (page 282).
  • The normal animal lives neither for the moment nor for the past, but is able to compare the two and make an appropriate response to adjust the difference. It is able to find meaning in its phenomenological milieu and, when it can’t, to embark on a series of excursions that will enable it to discover appropriate meanings for novel phenomena. And if those meanings are repeated often enough, or are important enough, then the normal animal is capable of remembering them (page 283f.).
  • The hippocampus, as a novelty detector, directs its output to several important destinations: to the hypothalamus, the custodian of the internal milieu; to the midbrain reticular formation, regulator of arousal and wakefulness; to the prefrontal areas in which so many separate signals are coordinated; and to itself, via a kind of reverberating feedback loop that turns momentary stimuli into enduring potentations that influence its own activity. In each case it acts like a switch that turns another operation on or off, depending on the disparity between the signals it receives. From its central location it influences motivation, arousal, sensory coherence, interference, memory, meaning, and behavior (page 284).
  • Since the business of memory is survival (by making lessons learned in the past available on suitable occasions in the present), it is not surprising that these survival-related functions form the core of many of our strongest memories (page 286).
  • The hippocampus (and its associated network of connectivities to related areas) thus makes it possible for repeated episodes of similar sensory signals to exert a systemic influence that renders them familiar and—beyond that—meaningful. Such signals are more readily “welcomed” by the perceptual system because they “speak” to prior experience, to the heritage of the perceiver. And, since they address not an identical replica of themselves but an abstraction derived from multiple repetitions (or approximations) over time, their reception occurs within a framework of historical reference that equates their existential pattern of sensory stimulation with something already in the perceiver’s possession, with a referential meaning that is already an aspect of the perceiving apparatus itself (page 292).
  • Sensory signals, . . . are like keys that acquire a meaning by being inserted into certain locks that anticipate their configuration; sensations are different from meanings in the same sense those keys are different from the locks that they open. And, to continue the simile, the hippocampus is the locksmith who adjusts the lock to fit those keys that are repeatedly or forcefully imposed upon their workings (page 292).
  • The salient feature of context-related memory is the influence it exerts upon the process of perception. . . . Its primary function is to direct attention toward those aspects of a situation that are most likely to prove pertinent to the motivational state of the individual perceiver. It is a reaching-out for perception on the basis of an authority vested in the ongoing interaction between self and world as it has been achieved in the current (or immediately prior) situation. Thus does experiential meaning, once unlocked, strive to perpetuate itself by [putting] itself forward on the basis of its recent successes, attempting to discriminate a world that would fulfill its current promise as if foretold as a kind of destiny—like a lock awaiting to be fulfilled by a certain key(page 295).
  • [I]t is no accident that our ideas nest within each other so conveniently, that our understanding is hierarchical in nature, allowing the most venial notion to coexist with our highest ideals, the mundane with the celestial, the profane with the sacred. For all its complexity, the paramount achievement of the brain is the selection and synchronization of its ongoing processes so that mind is characterized by a coherent flow of ideas that provides a continuous rationale for purposive behavior (page 301).
  • [Our] strategy [is] to present ourselves to the world from the security of our heritage of personal experience, and to weld whatever patterns we discovery firmly to the structure we have already built. The world we see is the world we have learned to see. That is the genius of our species and the secret of our survival: the world is always contingent upon the way we present ourselves to it—upon the way we have learned to seize it. No miracle is more profound because, instead of granting us eternal wisdom, it challenges us to pursue every opportunity for learning, and to remain open to the worlds that others have discovered for themselves (page 317).

So, no, I’m not making-up these posts as I go along. They are deeply rooted in my life’s cumulative endeavors and experience. That is, in the flowing situations in my innermost parts that give meaning to my life.


449. My Parents

March 5, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, parents are people. They are who they are. They can’t be all things to all children, who tend to draw closer to one or the other. Sex hormones may be one draw, a sense of shared identity or “identification” another. I’m with him, mister active who plays catch; I’m with her, the listener and supporter who gives me a hug now and then.

I grew up under the teachings of John B. Watson’s recent (1928) book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which advised raising children at an emotional distance as if they were young adults, shaking hands with them, but not hugging or kissing them lest they be spoiled. Young academics were apt to accept Watson’s doctrine as the authentic voice of scientific reasoning, so got suckered in to Watson’s “method,” while more loving parents remained skeptical.

The only time I can remember my father holding me in his lap was once on the front porch when he helped tie my shoes. The incident stands out because it was a unique event. Late in her life, my mother admitted that most people in Hamilton didn’t approve of how she was raising her three boys.

However family attachments are formed, they stir our engagements much as loving hands turn a prayer wheel in Tibet, or, as in my case, dutiful hands dress a child for school to meet community standards of approval. I have always seen my childhood as Platonic in being based on ideas and not feelings. I can’t recommend such treatment to anyone.

After all, it takes only a gentle pressure now and then to keep family relationships active and alive. Like prayer wheels, family engagements are made to spin, two partners in mutual orbit. To endure, they have to spin one around the other. In most families, parents trade off in keeping things going. Both are active while doing different jobs that have to get done every day. Like working for a living, getting dinner on the table, cleaning house, or watching a movie together.

When my parents got married in 1926, my father laid down the law: this is to be a one-career family. My mother was working on her doctorate in geology, so had to switch tracks mid-course. Her father had been a granite worker in the quarries of Sullivan, Maine. It was only natural for her to follow his lead. I remember she kept a few mineral samples in a bowl on her dresser, each labeled with its scientific binomial. In 1923, she did geological research at Acadia National Park. That was the year her father died of silicosis.

In the mid-1920s, her future husband showed up on her doorstep in Sullivan, seeking a rest stop on a hike from Middlebury to Nova Scotia. That was the end of his solo journey. My mother grudgingly learned to specialize in childcare and homemaking, developing a sideline of easel painting on Sundays, her day off.

I remember her boiling the laundry in a huge copper laundry tub that fit over two burners of the coal stove in the kitchen. She was a highly visual person, with marine artists in her family background. A Maine native, she loved the outdoors. In Seattle in the 1940s, I remember her saying after a long spell in the house, “I want to go out and touch trees.” She sent many signals that childrearing was not her chosen thing. But she worked at it as best she could because that was her family role. When she got more free time as her three boys got older, she took up flower gardening as a suitable pastime for a faculty wife.

My father was a distinguished college teacher of English. As far as I could tell, his toolkit consisted of pencils, paperclips, a stapler, pads of paper, and a zinc writing board with a bent corner. His main tool was an upright Underwood typewriter that made clickety noises through the closed door of his study after dinner, starting promptly at seven o’clock.

Each of us three boys had to invent himself for lack of an explicit model to engage with. Career-wise, we each did a lot of flub-dubbing around. Both my older and younger brother had great trouble finding a way through the halls of higher education. Both of them got lost.

Suspended between science and the humanities, I, too, got lost, but as a middle child with lesser influence from both parents, in my late forties I eventually stumbled my way to a doctorate in humanistic and behavioral education from Boston University School of Education in 1982. On the secondary level, I taught English for a time, and poetry, along with creative photography, art, and the humanities. Then I moved to Maine to write my great book, became an environmentalist, made a life for myself, and discovered wayfaring as my true profession. So did I resolve the misguidance of John B. Watson’s early and longstanding influence on my life.

379. Wayfarer In a Black Box

December 10, 2014

Our animal nature as go-getters casts a revelatory light on the function of our minds, our personal prime movers and shakers. In some circles it may be an unforgivable slip to mention the existence of free will, but what is it that is missing in states of sleeping and dreaming if not precisely that, the will that serves as navigator and wayfarer-in-chief when we reawaken?

Self-guided locomotion is the essence of our animal existence. Going to school, going to work, going to the bank, going to jail, going to dinner, going shopping, going home, even going to sleep.

Our distrust of free will is a shadow cast by the ideology of behaviorism on the entire discipline of psychology. If I were a psychologist or neuroscientist, I would look first at the link between perception and behavior for the neural structures that account for the effective coupling of the two. What I find at that location in myself after thirty years of introspection is the deadly duo of judgment and meaning imposing law and order on my wayward thoughts, so bridging the gap between input and output, converting sensory impressions into decisive actions in the world.

Emotions, values, understanding, and memory would feed into that coupling, along with an ability to compare goals against accomplishments as a gauge of the relative success or failure of earlier attempts to coordinate the two.

Mind in its black box as model of the outside world—that is the image I awoke with from my dream on March 10, 2014 (see post 378). Every person’s neural network is different due to formative and experiential factors governing the structure of such networks in finest detail. The job of each mind is to provide a unique model of, and way into, the world as it steers its own course through life.

Our minds guide our steps through successive life engagements in response to relevant sensory experience, remembrance, emotions, values, judgments, imagination, goals, expectancies, and other motivators active for one lifetime.

No mind is merely an autopilot. All serve as finely-tuned, experiential systems creatively bridging the gap between the integrity of a singular organism and its familial, communal, cultural, and natural environments at different levels of resolution and discernment.

The upshot being the powerful influence of mental characteristics and accomplishments on the reproduction and survival of individual bodies and brains, as well as on the cultural and genetic traits they share with their descendants. Shazam! So-called natural selection has stolen credit from individual self-selective engagements run by the situated intelligence at the core of each of our individual minds.

All that from one dream. Backed up by hundreds of earlier examples. And by the flurry of ideas in my mind as I waken unto them yet again. The image of a wayfarer in a black box is as good a metaphor as I have hit upon for what it feels like to be me.

It is no accident that in the 1990s I wrote a book based on sixty hikes in Acadia National Park over a period of five years. I billed the book as an effort to describe “the soul of a national park,” but it was more a portrait of my soul in the mid-1990s when I took those hikes and put that book together. I see it now as an extended metaphor for the park from the perspective inside my black box at the time.

And looking further back to 1982, I see the doctoral dissertation I wrote at Boston University’s School of Education, Metaphor to Mythology, as a portrayal of the mind of the same wayfarer at an earlier stage of his journey.